by Alyssa Walkup & Jorge Gomez • 8 min read
Sports Illustrated recently published an article putting a spotlight on First Liberty’s client, Coach Joe Kennedy, the high school football coach who was fired because he kneeled for a brief, private prayer at the 50-yard line. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on his case soon.
Sports Illustrated wrote a lengthy piece, but it missed several critical facts in Coach Kennedy’s story. Additionally, it did not paint an accurate picture of the impact this case could have on religious freedom in America.
Faith: An Enemy of the American Experience?
From the outset, the title is misleading: When Faith and Football Teamed up Against American Democracy. It implies that faith is antithetical to American democracy. That’s simply not true.
Faith is—and has always been—at the center of our country. We see this in the first settlers who came to the New World seeking religious liberty. We see it in the Founders, who ensured that religious freedom was among the inalienable rights listed in the Constitution. The right to freely live out our faith is a defining part of America and why freedom has been able to flourish for nearly 250 years.
The author goes on to claim: “The expected result is a win for the coach—and the further erosion of the separation of church and state.”
The phrase “separation of church and state” has long been wildly distorted by those who want to scrub all religious expression from the public eye. As used in the article, it suggests that religion and the state should never mix.
But this phrase does not mean religious exercise or prayer should never occur on government property.
Recall one important fact: The words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the text of the Constitution. This phrase came from a letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists, a religious group in Connecticut concerned with their state government’s weak religious liberty protections. When read in context, Jefferson is saying that the “wall” is to keep government out of interfering with religious free exercise—contrary to how the phrase is misused today.
Consider this too: President Jefferson attended religious services in the U.S. Capitol featuring the preaching of Baptist minister John Leland two days after finishing his famous “wall of separation” letter. He also permitted public property to be used for religious services.
This historical context matters a great deal when discussing Coach Kennedy’s case. Contrary to the article’s claim, a win for Coach Kennedy would not result in the “further erosion” of the separation of church and state. A victory for him could help affirm the original intent of the Constitution regarding religious expression on public property.
Public employers, especially within school districts, often misunderstand their obligations under the First Amendment’s religion clauses. With Coach Kennedy’s case, First Liberty has asked the Supreme Court to clarify the relationship between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause.
A ruling in his favor could help clarify that government does not need to show hostility toward religion. It does not need to fire public employees for living out their faith. This is a more accurate interpretation of the Constitution, one that’s consistent with our history and traditions.
20 Years of Military Service Ignored
The article provided intricate details of Coach Kennedy’s childhood, adolescence and even his marriage. Yet, it only spent one meager paragraph discussing his military service. That’s surprising, considering he devoted nearly 20 years of his life fighting for America and for freedom.
The article fails to mention his two deployments during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Those were not casual experiences. Being on the frontlines of war not only molded his character, but also gave him a deeper appreciation for the Constitution, the freedoms we enjoy and for our country. While overseas, he witnessed firsthand what the absence of religious freedom looked like and why we cannot take our rights for granted.
As a Marine, Coach Joe took an oath to protect the Constitution. But fighting on the battlefield was only one part—indeed, only the beginning—of his duty and service to his country.
Not long after leaving the service, he’d once again be called to defend the Constitution. Although this time, he wouldn’t be wearing a military uniform. If you want to understand Coach Kennedy’s courage and commitment to his faith, then you must give deference to his military service. This experience taught him to persevere during adversity. It showed him first-hand why it’s worth fighting for your God-given rights.
An Inspiring Story of Redemption
The article states that Coach Kennedy was “aimless for most of his 53 years.” It talked in great detail about his difficult childhood, life in the foster care system, his struggle to survive, sneaking into a local church to sleep at night and even some illicit activities during his youth. It makes Coach Kennedy appear like a wanderer, a man with a troubled past and who lacked purpose, but just happened to make it to the forefront of a major Supreme Court case.
This depiction is flawed. If you ever meet Coach Kennedy in person, you find a gregarious, humorous and uplifting personality. A first impression would never suggest he is someone burdened or haunted by a dark past. Even with his jovial demeanor, he’s never been one to hide his past or tough upbringing. He openly shares the trials he faced when asked about his life. As evidence, watch the video below:
We can view Coach Kennedy’s journey through a better lens. His story is one of redemption. It’s a testament to the way God uses imperfect people for a greater purpose. It’s a story of a kid from Bremerton, Washington who was homeless and struggled to survive, who some thought would never make an impact. Yet, God chose to work in him and through him to perhaps bring about major change to religious freedom law in America.
Some would say Coach Kennedy is an unlikely hero. Maybe that’s exactly who God intended to be at the center of this major legal battle. Not a picture of perfection, but someone who—despite the ups and down of life—understands why it’s important to stand for one’s rights and freedoms.
Whether during his difficult childhood or his years in the service, all of it was to prepare him for this moment, when he would not just be fighting for his right to pray, but for the rights of millions of Americans.
We applaud and commemorate Coach Kennedy for his heroic perseverance on the frontlines of war and the legal battlefront. Time after time, this veteran and football coach has led by example, showing us that we must never back down in our commitment to God and our country.